The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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That hole is a gateway. And it leads, straight down, to hell. Now, who wants to buy some drugs? Yorkshire boy Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent to a strange public school by his concerned mother Kay (Isabella Laughland) where he has to share a room with the rather eccentric and bullied snuff-sniffing Willoughby (Asa Butterfield). He finds his predecessor hanged himself. He falls for ‘goddess’ Clemsie (Hermione Corfield) but is warned off and gets homesick in this weird institution run by The Bat (Michael Sheen) with a horrible house called Andromeda where students undergo strange rituals. Useless master Meredith (Simon Pegg) spends all of his downtime Skyping former love Audrey (Margot Robbie) who has clearly found a new romantic interest in South Sudan. When a company called Terrafrack run by Bat’s mate Lambert (Alex Macqueen) unearths a huge sinkhole emitting a terrible methane cloud it appears it has disturbed some strange subterranean creatures in the woods. And there’s an eco protest group nearby where Woody (Nick Frost) has a stash of drugs he wants to sell but there’s more to him than anyone suspects … We’re going to let them run our fucking country? From a screenplay by debut director Crispian Mills and Henry Fitzherbert, this is the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration, following their Cornetto Trilogy but they are minor characters, sidelined by attractive teens.  This is a story with the evils of fracking at its heart that traffics in charm rather than terror in episodic fashion. No more than Don’s mother, it has aspirations above its station in its references and a swipe at class difference, with a photo of Malcolm McDowell in the great If… on Willoughby’s wall. But it’s a schlock horror not a shock horror with lowbrow laughs, social commentary, some gore and a backstory that harks at myth. This may not be great but it is efficient genre cinema with oodles of good humour (and bad nature) and we might expect good things from the scion of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, never mind that he was also the frontman of Kula Shaker. The ecstasy of death

Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

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Tap it gently. We’re not here to announce a film. In September 1939, confusion reigns when St Swithin’s Girls’ School is relocated to the countryside and accidentally billeted at Nutbourne College, a long-established boarding school for boys. The two heads, Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) and Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford), try to cope with the ensuing chaos, as the children and staff attempt to live in the newly cramped conditions (it being impossible to share dormitories or other facilities), and seek to prevent the children taking advantage of their new opportunities. But with the domestic staff up in arms and departing, St Swithins’ home economics students are not really cutting the mustard and their parents are visiting… My mind is made up on one thing Miss Whitchurch: if I sink, you sink with me!  With titles by Ronald Searle and a cast that includes Joyce Grenfell, Guy Middleton and Richard Wattis (and an uncredited George Cole) you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a St Trinian’s film by mistake. In fact that series’ authors, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, are responsible for this outing, which takes a superb cast and a tilt at bureaucracy, a dig at the post-war problems besetting 1950s Britain.  Some terrific setpieces include literally moving the goalposts when the parents’ tour coincides with the governors’ of the prestigious school where Pond is hoping to get his next appointment. We’re waiting for an explanation Mr Pond!/Can’t you see I’m trying to think of one? Adapted by John Dighton from his own play with Frank Launder. A lot of droll fun with Sim and Rutherford in their element. Call me Sausage!

Christopher Robin (2017)

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People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.  Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) now a family man living in London receives a surprise visit from his old childhood pal, Winnie-the-Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings). With Christopher’s help, Pooh embarks on a journey to find his friends – Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo. Christopher Robin is irritated by Pooh’s fear of Heffalumps. Once reunited, the lovable bear and the gang travel to the big city to help Christopher rediscover the joy of life as he tries to save the jobs of his colleagues in the luggage company where he is an efficiency manager… I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been. A film with baggage, quite frankly, as it struggles for at least the first hour to find its feet. The juxtaposition of bustling city with bucolic countryside is initially strained because until the adult Christopher Robin finally becomes at home with his inner child the Hundred Acre Wood is a dark, dank place. McGregor isn’t happy in the role until his character becomes happy. Nor are we, ironically, in a story about someone who has lost the power of imagination. The animatronic animals are wonderful however in a troublesome and sticky piece of work which bears the taint of cynicism and is a case of split cinematic personality. Inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories, although you’d never know from this film that Christopher Robin was his son, this is written by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder from a story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson while it was directed by Marc Forster. I’m not the person I used to be

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

The Odyssey (2016)

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Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.